Skip to main content

How can we make schools safer?

Researcher: Dorothy Espelage
Dorothy Espelage cover image

Dorothy Espelage found her way into her field of research the way many scholars do: She stumbled into it.

Twenty-five years later, Espelage has established herself as one of the world’s leading academic authorities on student well-being, school safety, and bullying.

Espelage, the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill, conducts research that has illuminated issues around youth violence and has led to interventions, policies, and laws aimed at helping protect students and making schools safer.

She is credited with introducing the notion that school-based bullying is best understood as a behavior that emerges over time, is maintained as a group phenomenon and serves as a precursor to other forms of youth violence.

Her work has had impact.

“When we started this work in the early ’90s, one state in this country had an anti-bullying law,” Espelage said. “Every state has some form of legislation now.”

Where it began

Espelage’s research career started in graduate school at the Indiana University, where she served as an evaluator, assessing the efficacy of a computer-based program aimed at preventing youth violence. During that project, she found the work of Dan Olweus, a Norwegian psychology researcher who pioneered investigations into bullying.

“Why are kids bullying? What predicts it? What are the risk factors? What are the protective factors?”
Dorothy Espelage

But, she said she was not convinced that the findings regarding the roots of bullying found in Europe were transferable to the contexts of U.S. schools.

“So with my graduate students we just went in and we did lots of focus groups and interviews with American kids to understand what is this notion of bullying,” Espelage said. “Why are kids bullying? What predicts it? What are the risk factors? What are the protective factors? And that just started this huge body of literature and research programs across the years.”

Since then, research led by Espelage has resulted in nearly 200 refereed journal articles, 73 book chapters, and five books, making her one of the world’s most-cited scholars in her areas of research. Her work has attracted more than $14 million in research funding.

In 2018, Espelage was elected to the National Academy of Education. She is a recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Prevention Science and the APA’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy. She is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association, the Association of Psychological Science and the American Psychological Association’s Divisions 15 (Educational Psychology) and 17 (Counseling Psychology).

She came to Carolina this year from the University of Florida, where she was a professor of psychology. She previously was at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she was the Edward William Gutgsell & Jane Marr Gutgsell Endowed Professor and College of Education Hardie Professor.

Translating research into effective practices

In addition to conducting research, Espelage orients much of her work toward helping the public and policymakers understand academic research findings so that effective prevention and intervention programs can be created and supported. She regularly advises members of Congress and has led webinars for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Justice. She authored a 2011 White House brief on bullying among LGBTQ youth.

Espelage has served as a consultant for the website, the Department of Health and Human Services’ national anti-bullying campaign, and NIH’s Pathways to Prevention initiative to address bullying and youth suicide. She regularly appears on television news and talk shows and is frequently sought after by national news media for her perspective on student well-being issues.

She actively mentors scholars from around the world on bullying and other student well-being issues and has advised hundreds of government officials from the U.S. and other nations. Espelage frequently leads training sessions for school resource officers (SROs), educators and administrators.

For her most recently funded project, Espelage, with her colleagues at University of Florida, University of Missouri, and Vanderbilt University, has been awarded $1.4 million by the Institute of Education Sciences to develop and pilot test an online professional development program for elementary school educators, with an emphasis on general education and special education teachers, aimed at helping them understand how to identify bullying, respond, and intervene.

“With this program, we’ll use a coach-embedded framework and give teachers hands-on experiences that they had not gotten before,” Espelage said.

Following is a Q&A with Espelage, who talked about some of the key things she has discovered, and where her new work is leading.

Edge: In school and student safety, where are the gaps in our understandings?

Espelage: I can identify gaps in five areas.

First, clearly we know that policies and procedures are important around school safety. Policies and procedures are simply not enough. We need to understand how they need to be implemented, and they need to be consistently implemented.

Second, we understand that parents need to be able to have open communication with school administrators and teachers. Oftentimes, schools have policies and procedures related to addressing bullying, but these policies and procedures are not communicated to parents until something concerning happens with their children. Schools often have parents sign that they have read the policies in the handbook, but the content of these policies are not explained to parents. Schools have less bullying issues when they hold regular meetings with parents about their policies and/or communicate via multiple avenues — such as emails, PTA meetings, newsletters — consistently each year.

“We also need to train the custodians and the cafeteria workers, campus monitors and school police — all the adults who interact with kids. That’s a major, major gap.”
Dorothy Espelage

Three, we know that teachers, administrators, staff — even the custodians — need to be trained to understand both bullying and other forms of aggression and develop their competencies and advocacy around it.

It was only recently in the last decade, maybe even the last seven years, that we’ve recognized that adults are lacking some of the very competencies that we’re trying to train the children to develop. Some of our recent work, including an IES grant that was just funded, is to do in-depth professional development for teachers, both special education and general education teachers, to help them to understand how to identify bullying, respond, and intervene, but doing it through a coach-embedded framework to give them hands-on experiences that they have not gotten before.

We also need to train the custodians and the cafeteria workers, campus monitors and school police — all the adults who interact with kids. That’s a major, major gap.

Fourth, we know that kids need behavioral expectations within the contexts that promote school safety. And that means that there are certain types of behaviors that will not be tolerated because they contribute to a negative climate.

The Institute of Education Sciences recognizes a gap around school safety and academic achievement within the area of “positive behavior intervention supports.” We all support this idea that we need interventions that help reduce behavioral problems. But we don’t know how to integrate that with these other components I’m talking about.

A major gap in social-emotional competencies is that that we have now recognized that just because a district buys a particular social-emotional learning curriculum, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be implemented with fidelity. So how do we track that? How do we think about implementation science? And again, the RFP for IES right now it’s very, very clear that they understand that we need to do implementation studies. So what should it look like in various places?

And, fifth, we know that school climate really matters. So the relationships within a school building matter.

We were making some really good progress in the last presidential administration and with the secretary of education around school climate. As a result, we’ve got these great surveys that we spent millions and millions of dollars on. These surveys are free to schools and provide in-time and actionable data. But how do we get them to use the surveys when they are not aware of their existence? And then how do we encourage them to use the data to improve their school climate?

Then you can take all these five areas, and how do you integrate them together? What is the framework that accomplishes that?

Edge: What are the impediments to getting interventions that work into school environments?

Espelage: The biggest one is for administrators and school districts to recognize that this is something that is in their wheelhouse.

What we’ve learned is that the schools do a pretty good job of attending to physical safety. So they have the police officers, name tags, and security systems. But where the kids feel that they’re lacking is in emotional safety. We’re seeing that with the high rates of youth suicide and mental health challenges faced by our students.

The biggest impediment is districts and administrators recognizing that this is their responsibility. You’ve got to recognize that you have a problem before you can address it. School safety, bullying, sexual harassment, violence against teachers, all of these things are complex problems. But school districts want to go for the easy solutions. They like being able to say “We bought this program.” Or, “We bought this curriculum,” and then want to check off that box. But often there’s no money for evaluation and there’s no compliance. So we have these policies and procedures in the curriculum, but no one’s monitoring the extent to which they’re being implemented with fidelity. And I can tell you that the implementation of these programs and these frameworks is all over the place.

Also, there is a tremendous amount of competition in the school safety world. The focus on school shootings has led to more companies trying to get those safety dollars, and those safety dollars are largely going to school police and the “hardening” of our schools.

Another barrier is turnover in education. You may have a strong principal who has helped shift a climate, work that can take years, and now you have a restorative, problem-solving approach to discipline. But the minute that person leaves, that ideology, that framework, all that work, can go out the door.

In training school police or SROs in Florida, I found another challenge: The school districts don’t control these police. They’re not required to have professional development, or any kind of continuing education. In most cases, they don’t even have a child development course.

Also, unions can be impediments. Teacher unions and police unions may block any effort to have additional trainings.

We had great success with security specialists who work as school system employees. But we had to feed them. We had to pay them. It had to be a day when there were no kids on campus. We had to pay them to complete the evaluations. But at the end of the day, the 60 that I trained, they were like, “Wow! I’m going to really look at my children, my students, differently.”

Edge: After you’ve done a training session, what do people say that they learned? How are their eyes opened?

“With the security specialists I trained last month, they had never really thought about the fact that their kids come to school with trauma.”
Dorothy Espelage

Espelage: It depends on the training. So when I do training around understanding different types of issues that are related to school safety. For example, the notion that bullying is a precursor to other forms of violence. It’s like, “Aha! No way! I never thought of it that bullying leads to gender-based harassment and that leads to sexual violence.”

They’re just like moved by this. It helps them because then they can see their classroom and the students interacting differently.

With the security specialists I trained last month, they had never really thought about the fact that their kids come to school with trauma.

Another one is that when teachers and administrators do social-emotional learning training, they recognize that they are lacking in some of these very competencies themselves, whether it’s self-awareness or social awareness and/or emotional regulation.

I think if I have a good training, then they will recognize that most of this comes down to really strong interpersonal relationships with kids. It comes down to basics. These teachers and administrators often get lost in the daily stresses of working in schools. But they come to realize that it all boils down to developing ways to build basic human connections with these kids and try to get to know them and understand what they’re bringing to the table, and that includes their trauma.

Often what happens in my training sessions is that for really good educators the sessions serve as validation. They’re like, “This is what I’ve been doing. Oh, there’s a science to this!” They get it.

Edge: What directions are you taking from here?

Espelage: I’ve got funding from the Department of Justice to continue work to soften the hardening in schools. So I will continue training school police. I see training security specialists and other folks in the state of North Carolina, and they’re open to it. I’ve started that communication.

A key project will be using this new IES funding to develop online professional development for general education and special education teachers, focusing bullying prevention on the adults in the building.

We’re going to continue to try to use innovative methods to reach and train people. We have a lot of proposals under review, so it depends on what gets funded.

We would like to be able to do work in bullying prevention, teen-dating violence prevention, and sexual violence prevention that doesn’t take up classroom time. That’s one of our priorities. We’d like to develop games for kids to learn how to intervene when they see cyberbullying, for example, and to develop the healthy skills that they need to prevent teen-dating violence, those types of things.

And we’ll continue to publish off of all of our data sets. We just ended a randomized clinical trial evaluating a youth-led intervention program at high schools called “Sources of Strength.” We’ll be analyzing and writing about that for the next couple of years. It’s going to give us some understanding of what these youth-led interventions need to look like to be efficacious.

We’ve got lots of exciting things happening.

+ Share This

By Michael Hobbs